Since the sports and outdoor shop run by Rainer Angstl in Munich is situated in the same building as an Apple store, the chief executive at Sporthaus Schuster witnessed first-hand the queue forming several days ahead of the launch of the Iphone 6S a few weeks ago. It started with a young man who arrived from Belarus on the Monday for the event scheduled on Friday. But the next week, there was no particular rush to Sport Schuster when it launched C-Knit, the latest innovation from Gore-Tex – even though the store managers had abundantly spread the message and built a window display around it.

For Angstl, this anecdote shared in a panel discussion on the future of innovation in the outdoor industry, at the European Outdoor Summit in Sheffield, clearly showed the need for the outdoor industry to come up with more striking innovation. After all, soft shells are more than a decade old and many outdoor products have the same appearance. Meanwhile the industry produced many small innovations, but these were often hard to share with consumers, he said.

As Angstl explained, retailers required innovation that could help to enthuse outdoor consumers and attract others to the outdoor industry. He added that outdoor companies could afford to be bolder in their approach to innovation, as they continue to benefit from a stable market. Outdoor consumers are probably ahead of the industry in terms of innovation, Angstl and others agreed during the panel discussion.

Cooperation is an item that came up recurrently as a potential driver of innovation in the industry. Achim Löffler, global vice president footwear at Gore-Tex, argued that there had to be more partnerships in the supply chain to support innovation. Tobias Gröber, director of the business unit consumer goods at Messe München, the organizers of Ispo fairs, pleaded for more cooperation in the industry at large, for example through more data sharing. Gröber argued that outdoor companies may be competing against each other but they are more importantly competing against other industries that often form more powerful interest groups, such as the pharmaceuticals or food and beverages industry.

The discussion was introduced by Thomas Vucurevic from BrainD in Slovenia, described as the only brand consulting firm specializing in the development and management of brands for components, technologies and ingredients. He suggested that cooperation was all the more important in the outdoor industry since many of the players are relatively small and competing with companies that have much larger resources and access to technology. He thus described the ambition of many small outdoor companies to drive their innovation alone as a “dead end.”

Nick Hamilton, principal research fellow at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research (CSER) at Sheffield Hallam University, posited that outdoor companies ought to take more advantage of technology to support participation. The CSER is described as the largest research center in the world focusing on sports engineering with 20 staff, 15 PHD and 20 MSC students.

Gröber suggested making connections between the outdoor sector and others, such as electronics. One of the most successful innovators at the intersection of both industries in the last years is GoPro, which won the Ispo Brand New award in 2005. Löffler said that Gore-Tex was already engaging with companies such as Google and Samsung, but their pace was much faster and the outdoor industry ought to speed up innovation.

Separately, it was suggested that sustainability could be a particularly relevant (and natural) topic for innovation for the outdoor industry. As part of a workshop on sustainability as a core business for outdoor companies, Joel Svedlund from Peak Innovation actually pointed to innovation as one of the major business opportunities to be explored through investments in sustainability – along with risk mitigation, added competitiveness and enhanced brand value.

Peak Innovation, a Swedish government-funded organization building a cluster of outdoor companies and competence in the province of Jämtland, advises several outdoor companies on sustainability planning. Tesla is an obvious example from another industry where sustainable innovation drives business. But there are others from the outdoor industry, such as Klättermusen, where Svedlund previously worked. Its positioning as a sustainable brand proved valuable when it was recognized as an asset by Toray, which agreed to work directly with this relatively small Swedish company for the launch of a 60 percent plant-based nylon for down garments. Teko is another example where the promise to make the best socks on (or for) the planet turn a relatively simple product into something outstanding.

Svedlund also mentioned innovations in sustainability that could add value to outdoor products, such as the DyeCoo waterless dyeing process used by Berghaus, or Organotex, a fluorocarbon-free water repellent technology. Südwolle, which sponsored the workshop, is marketing Naturetexx Plasma, machine washable merino without chlorine.

Over and after the two-day summit, several delegates informally shared their astonishment that the outdoor industry did not appear more compelled to enhance its positioning through innovation in sustainability – a topic of consistent focus for the European Outdoor Group (EOG), the organizers of the summit. They would have been encouraged by the sight of the packed room for this workshop – where the standing crowd was clearly not solely inspired by earlier advice to avoid sitting all day.